Book Review

Book Review: Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie by Jeff Norton.

Memoirs‘My name is Adam Meltzer and the last thing I remember was being stung by a bee while swinging at a robot-shaped pinata on my twelfth birthday. I was dead before the candy hit the ground.’

Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie is narrated by the hilarious Adam Meltzer – pre-teen, worrywart, and now zombie. Adam’s family gets the fright of their lives when he turns up at their door . . . three months after his funeral.

Soon Adam’s back at school trying to fit in and not draw extra attention to himself, but when he sees his neighbour Ernesto transform into a chupacubra, and the beautiful Corina (Adam’s number one mega-crush) turns out to be a (vegan) vampire, undead life is never going to be the same again.

A hilarious adventure caper – if Ferris Bueller met Shaun of the Dead – all about friendship and being yourself . . . even if you’re undead.

Sometimes I look at my bookcase when I’m trying to choose my next read and find myself yearning for something that’s completely fun. On these occasions I always start looking over the Middle Grade titles I have waiting for me, this is almost always where the funniest books on my shelves can be found. Everything I’d heard about Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie made me think it was going to serve my desire for a fun read very well indeed.

Adam is a really engaging lead character, he’s funny and self-deprecating without either feeling over done. I found his frustrations with returning to his life to find out how much of it has already changed both touching and amusing, the way Adam just got on with things worked really well. I also enjoyed the introduction of his two fellow non-humans; Corina the vegan vampire and Ernesto the chupacubra. All three have their own issues with their supernatural side, I felt this made their burgeoning friendship all the stronger. I very much liked that the chupacubra was included – it’s nice to see some of the lesser used supernatural species get a little attention from time to time.

There is a great quest aspect to this book, Adam doesn’t understand why he is a zombie and decides to find the bee that stung and killed him. I learnt something from this element of the plot – I’d always been under the impression once bees stung they died, a quick search taught me this only holds true for honey bees. Once I’d educated myself I got straight back to reading, willing the trio on as they tried to track down the responsible creature. The way this all plays out is very satisfying, I really enjoyed that whilst the quest is for the answers Adam’s looking for both Corina and Ernesto also get to develop a lot throughout its progression.

The book contains lots of footnotes, something I have very mixed feelings about. I’ve read books where they’ve been really badly done and had a hugely detrimental effect on how I’ve felt about the book. When they’re done well though they can add a lot to the reading experience and the footnotes in Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie are done really well. They added a lot to Adam’s character and often made me laugh.

This is the first of Jeff Norton’s books that I’ve read, despite being very aware of his hugely popular Metawars series I’ve never picked one up to read. This was a great introduction to his writing and I now have every intention of catching up. In the meantime I’m going to be purchasing a few copies of Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie as gifts over the next few months – I have some young readers in mind who I know will love this as much as I did!

Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie is published by Faber Children’s Books. Whilst I was provided with a copy of the book by the publisher all opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review: The Tornado Chasers by Ross Montgomery.

TornadoChasersWhen Owen Underwood’s family move to Barrow, it’s because there’s nowhere safer in the Valleys – and safety is very important. Especially when the threat of tornadoes, and giant bears, is constant.

But in Barrow, safety is taken to extremes. Children have to wear bright yellow at all times and are never allowed outside except to go to school. How can Owen face an entire summer of that?

In secret, Owen and his friends form the Tornado Chasers. Their mission: to get as close to a Grade 5 tornado as possible. It’s time for them to face their fears!

And then… And then…

The second hilarious, thought-provoking, highly original book from an extraordinary young talent – you’ve never read a novel like it!

The first couple of chapters of this book quickly draw you into the somewhat unusual version of our world that provides its setting. It feels like a world where health and safety fears really have taken over – every element of life in the small town of Barrow is governed by a risk averse attitude. I was immediately drawn into Owen’s story, feeling very sorry for him and the new friends he was making as the impact of all of the safety rules became increasingly clear.

The book very much feels like it’s a cautionary tale, we all know the age old wisdom that the more you tell someone they can’t have or do something the more they want to do exactly the opposite. It’s no wonder therefore that Owen and his friends come together with a wish to rebel and to go and chase one of the tornados responsible for so many of the restrictions placed upon them.

The description of this book as hilarious, thought-provoking, highly original is spot on. There were definite laugh out loud moments but there were just as many, if not more, moments that left the reader with something to think about. Considering perceptions is a real theme running throughout the book – there are characters that are being seen one, perhaps flawed, way by the characters but we the reader can perhaps see them a little more clearly as we’re seeing them from a distance.

Owen’s group of friends are a wonderfully mixed bunch, seeing how they come together in spite of their differences was lovely. Their first meeting in particular was brilliant, I found myself thinking back to the wonderful groups from the many Enid Blyton books I read as a child. I liked as well the way that the group of characters included a person of colour and person with a disability without either of these things defining the character – something I hope we’re going to be seeing more and more of in children’s literature.

There are some pretty big twists and turns as the book progresses, a couple of times I was pleasantly surprised by the direction that the book took. The ending left me thinking for a long time, I’ll certainly be interested to hear how younger readers get on with it. I do think it’s a very fitting ending but I also think it’s likely to be one that might need some discussion – I imagine like anything this will vary from reader to reader but is worth considering if you’re giving the book to someone.

I haven’t read Ross Montgomery’s first book Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door but on the strength of this book it’s definitely earned a place on my books to read list.

The Tornado Chasers is published by Faber Children’s Books. Whilst I was provided with a copy of the book by the publisher all opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review : Mr Stink by David Walliams.

MrStink“Mr Stink stank. He also stunk. And if it was correct English to say he stinked, then he stinked as well…”

It all starts when Chloe makes friends with Mr Stink, the local tramp. Yes, he smells a bit. But when it looks like he might be driven out of town, Chloe decides to hide him in the garden shed.

Now Chloe’s got to make sure no one finds out her secret. And speaking of secrets, there just might be more to Mr Stink than meets the eye… or the nose.

After reading and enjoying The Boy in the Dress I was really looking forward to reading Mr Stink. I got caught up in the story really quickly, and finished the book in one sitting.

The story is one big moral story about appearances being deceptive and how important it is to look more deeply at people rather than just accepting them at face value and making judgements about them. It never feels preachy or like a moral story though, this is all cleverly woven into the story. I loved the way that over the course of around 270 pages all of the key characters go on a real journey, with the exception of Raj (who should never change), they all end the book very differently to how they start it.

Chloe is a lovely main character, there were parts of her that really reminded me of me when I was 12. I loved her creativity and her focus on doing the right thing even when it was hard for her to do so. Mr Stink is a great creation though at times some of the descriptions of him or the things he did were a little on the gross side for me – I’m sure young readers will absolutely adore him. I was so pleased to see Raj featured in this book as well as The Boy in the Dress, I’m looking forward to seeing whether he appears in Walliams’ other books.

Mr Stink been adapted by the BBC and will be shown over the festive period with Hugh Bonneville playing the title role, I couldn’t quite imagine how this would work before I started reading but within the first couple of chapters I could see that the casting is perfect. The adaptation also stars Sheridan Smith and Johnny Vegas with an appearance from David Walliams. I have it highlighted ready in my festive TV guide, I can’t wait to see it.

Mr Stink is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in the UK.

Book Review

Book Review : Granny Samurai, the Monkey King and I by John Chambers.

GrannySamuraiEccentric young wordsmith Samuel Johnson finds himself home alone while his diplomat uncle is off diverting a crisis in Azerbaijan. As Samuel sits penning his memoirs and wondering how to divert the crisis in his own life – namely the big, hairy brute that is Boris Hissocks – he spots the little old lady next door acting very strangely. Is she actually chopping wood with her bare hands? Then the Monkey King comes knocking, and suddenly Samuel’s whole world is turned on its head…

Wow, I’m not entirely sure where to begin with talking about this book. I can definitely say it’s a funny, pacey read that will keep readers of all ages engaged, but to try and describe why is going to be a challenge – I really think this is one of those books that’s best discovered by reading. That won’t however make for much of a review so I’m going to do my best to talk about why I enjoyed it so much.

The plot is twisty and turny but is basically a story of goodies, Samuel and Granny Samurai, battling baddies who come in the form of school bully Boris Hissocks and the evil Monkey King who naturally has evil minions in tow. Poor Samuel is never quite up to speed with what’s going on, Granny Samurai is a lady of relatively few words and she certainly doesn’t waste them on explaining everything to him. This works really well for the reader, you’re as in the dark as Samuel is – I found myself coming up with all sorts of theories for what might be happening.

Samuel is an interesting lead character. I found that whilst I liked him and sympathised with his frustrations at not knowing what was going on I did also wish sometimes I could give him a little shake and encourage him to stand up for himself a little more. I imagine that the target audience won’t have any such feelings towards him. Granny Samurai, probably as expected, steals the book. She’s a larger than life, mysterious figure who comes out with absolute gems of dialogue. The book as a whole made me smile, most of the times that it made me laugh it was Granny Samurai who was responsible.

The book is illustrated, every double spread has at least one small drawing, on some the picture covers both pages and the text takes up only a small portion of the space. The pictures are all in grayscale and add a lot to the reading experience. Instead of a traditional chapter format the book is structured as Samuel’s memoir which means it has lots of short sections – I think this always helps books to feel like they’re zipping along when you read them.

Throughout the book the thing that kept coming to mind was how much I’d like to read this aloud to a group – I think it would work really well for this and will be passing my copy onto a friend who’s a teacher so that she can do just this. I don’t know if there are plans for another book featuring these characters but if there is one then I will definitely read it.

Granny Samurai, the Monkey King and I is published by Walker Books in the UK from 3rd January 2013. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review : The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams.

TheBoyInTheDressThe sparkling debut children’s novel from David Walliams, co-creator and co-star of the multi-award-winning Little Britain.

Dennis was different.

Why was he different, you ask?

Well, a small clue might be in the title of this book…

Charming, surprising and hilarious – The Boy in the Dress is everything you would expect from the co-creator of Little Britain. David Walliams’s beautiful first novel will touch the hearts (and funny bones) of children and adults alike.

Over the course of the placement I did in the summer I learnt that David Walliams’ books are hugely popular (along with Jacqueline Wilson, Andy Stanton and Jeff Kinney his books were the most requested by the children visiting the mobile library) so I knew I had to investigate for myself and find out what all the fuss was about. The fact that the BBC adaptation of Walliams’ second book Mr Stink is due on telly in the next few weeks prompted me to get and request a couple of books from the local library, I thought I’d start with The Boy in the Dress as it was the first book he’d written.

The fact that the illustrations in the book were done by Quentin Blake made me wonder whether Walliams could be taking the place of the current generation’s Roald Dahl, but I was pleased to discover within a few pages that actually Walliams is simply this generation’s David Walliams – a skilled, humorous, thought provoking storyteller. There was a real depth to the story that I really hadn’t been expecting, whilst there are lots of funny bits there are also many bits that make you think and may well encourage discussions with young readers.

Dennis is a lovely lead character, I found I was really rooting for him from the very start of the book. His friendships with Darvesh and Lisa are so well created, I could imagine them clearly. I found Dennis’ dad and brother to be really interesting characters, I liked the way that the less positive characters were portrayed over the course of the book in a sympathetic manner rather than as pantomime style villains.

My only slight misgiving with this book came with the resolution of one part of Dennis’ problem. Without wanting to spoil the plot for anyone all I’ll say is that I felt that Dennis and Lisa’s treatment of one of the adult characters didn’t really feel to me like it fitted with the rest of the book which was a real shame. It didn’t spoil my overall experience of the book however, I’ll certainly be recommending it to other people and am looking forward to reading Mr Stink very soon.

The Boy in the Dress is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in the UK.

Book Review

Book Review : Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

When the Tooting family finds an old engine and fits it to their camper van, they have no idea what kind of adventure lies ahead. The engine used to belong to an extraordinary car . . . and it wants its bodywork back! But as the Tootings hurtle across the world rebuilding the original Chitty, a sinister baddie is on their trail — one who will stop at nothing to get the magnificent car for himself.

Fueled by wry humor, this much-anticipated sequel to the children’s classic by Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond — featuring a contemporary family and a camper van with a mind of its own — is driven by best-selling, award-winning author Frank Cottrell Boyce and revved up by Joe Berger’s black-and-white illustrations.

I’ve been meaning to read something by Frank Cottrell Boyce ever since I discovered he wrote the book Framed that was adapted by the BBC a couple of years ago. Then lovely author Keris Stainton tweeted that she’d enjoyed this so I thought I would give it a go. I loved the film and the stage adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang so the idea of a follow up really appealed to me.

The first thing I have to say about this book is how much fun it is. I grinned all the way through it and laughed so many times. The plot is quick, and quirky and really entertaining. I loved the idea initially of a camper van that had been modified with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang style features, but the quick realisation that actually the original Chitty is trying to reassemble itself made me love it even more.

The book focuses on the Tooting family; Mum, Dad, and their three children Lucy, Jem and Harry. I loved Dad’s mad inventor side and eccentricities. The children were all brilliant characters, I’m not sure I could pick a favourite between them though Harry the toddler would probably make a good case for it being him. It wouldn’t be a good follow up to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang if there wasn’t some sort of scary character, Nanny makes a pretty good job of it though I was pretty pleased to see that she wasn’t as scary as the Childcatcher of the original story.

The book is a pretty quick read as an adult, it’s the kind of story that I imagine would work really well for bedtime storytelling. I’ll certainly be picking up more books by the author in the future.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again is published in hardback and eBook by Macmillan in the UK.

Book Review

Book Review : Swim the Fly by Don Calame.

Matt Gratton and his two best friends, Sean and Coop, always set themselves a summer-time goal. This year’s? To see a real-live naked girl for the first time. As far as Matt is concerned, they’d have better luck finding the lost city of Atlantis. But seeing a girl in the buff starts to seem like child’s play compared to the other summertime goal Matt sets for himself: to swim the 100-yard butterfly (the hardest stroke known to God or man) in order to impress Kelly West, the hot new girl. So what if he can’t manage a single lap, let alone four? He’s got the whole summer to perfect his technique. What could possibly go wrong?

This book was recommended to me following a discussion on Twitter about contemporary YA fiction with a male protagonist. I thought it sounded like something I could enjoy and went straight down to my local library to track down a copy.

The book is great fun. The plot is highly entertaining and I flipped back and forward between laughing and cringing for the majority of it. A couple of moments in it are downright gross, but they’re written in such a way that they’re hugely entertaining rather than off putting. There are a number of plot threads which all wind around each other beautifully, this is a book about friendship, first romance, and growing up.

The main three boys, Matt, Coop and Sean, are great characters and I loved their friendship. I really felt like I got to know them within the book, I was very pleased to discover at the end of the book that this is just the first volume about them – I’m already looking forward to reading more about them. I also loved Matt’s grandfather – Grandpa Arlo. His attempts to woo a recently widowed neighbour added yet another set of laughs to an already funny book.

I really like Don Calame’s writing style, the book zips along at a great pace and he’s created some wonderful characters that you can’t help but love. I think he manages to get the balance of the book just right, it would have been easy to let the laughs and gags run away with themselves, but they’re tempered with really lovely quieter moments.

I absolutely loved this book and will be looking out for the next books in the series. Definitely recommended.

Swim the Fly is published in paperback by Templar in the UK priced £6.99

Book Review

Book Review : Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset by Tom Angleberger.

There are so many exciting things in this book – a Stolen Diamond, snooping stable boys, a famous detective, love, pickle éclairs – that it really does seem a shame to begin with ladies’ underwear…

It all starts when M’Lady Luggertuck loosens her corset. As a result of “the Loosening,” all the strict rules around Smugwick Manor are abandoned. Shelves go undusted! Cake is eaten! Lunch is lukewarm! Then, when the precious family heirloom, the Luggertuck Lump (quite literally a lump), goes missing, the Luggertucks search for someone to blame. Could the thief really be Horton Halfpott, the good-natured but lowly kitchen boy who can’t tell a lie?

A colourful and hilarious cast comes together in this entertaining mystery, Tom Angleberger’s loopiest novel yet!

I don’t get to read many books aimed at the 8-12 market (I wish we had a cool term for this age band like the Americans who use Middle Grade) but when I do I tend to find myself thinking that I ought to read more. Most of the titles I’ve read are fun and fast-paced, Horton Halfpott is certainly no exception.

The opening pages are devoted to a map of the area around Smugwick Manor and drawings of the cast of characters. Each chapter also starts with a drawing of one or more characters, I found these entertaining and endearing. The book has 48 short chapters, I was glad there were so many as it meant I got to see so many illustrations.

The book is narrated by an unnamed narrator who breaks the fourth wall time and time again, often with a witty aside. This works well for the plot, it keeps it moving and adds humour to an already entertaining story. I can imagine that this book would work very well if it was read aloud, the way it’s written certainly feels like it would lend itself to this.

The plot is a bit like a child friendly version of an Agatha Christie story. Something mysterious happens, a famous detective is brought in to investigate, more mysterious things happen and then the mystery is solved. The addition of a potential love interest for Horton acts as an entertaining subplot, the two are woven together very well.

The cast of characters are brilliant, there are quite a few but I found I could keep track of who was who pretty easily. A lot of them are caricature-like, but this works well within the style of the book – they’re often outlandish without becoming over written or silly. I couldn’t begin to pick a favourite character, there were just too many that I loved.

Horton Halfpott is a thoroughly entertaining read, I enjoyed every minute of it. Throughout the book other stories about M’Lady Luggertuck are referenced, I do hope that Angleberger goes on to write them.

Horton Halfpott is published in hardback by Amulet Books in the UK priced £9.99. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.